i'm not a book reviewer, and this is not a book review. but our friend @pelldoherty has published a really excellent novel, and reading it prompted this essay. don't bother reading my essay, but do read Edith's Aria...
love, loss, and the end of violence
Edith's Aria by P. Doherty
As though stuck in a data-loop of epic proportions, like something out of the paranoid visions of philip k. dick, buried in the morass of absurdities we call our "news cycle", we have recently been hearing some particularly disturbing rumblings. these rumblings suggest to anyone who might be paying attention, that the pentagon has begun re-vamping our nuclear arsenal. to the tune of about 2 trillion dollars over the next decade, taxpayers will be the lucky recipients of a new, light-weight, easily deployed (read: "tactical") style of nuclear weaponry. is it really possible this is actually something being discussed… actually something our government is doing? even though i lived through the nuclear crisis of the cold war era (ok kids, it's time to drill; duck and cover, everyone!…) i still find it difficult to believe this can be happening again, and happening now of all times.
in life there are basically two kinds of crisis. the first moves slow, almost glacial in pace, yet grows insistently to an inevitable and inexorable conclusion. infuriating in the way it creeps up on you. one example might be having a genetic predisposition to certain illnesses; invisible, but embedded in your source code is a tiny flaw, a switch in your biological programming that won't open or possibly won't close when it's supposed to. your crisis moves up on you slowly, you never even knew it was a crisis until it was well and truly upon you and there was nothing else for it but to grin stupidly, bear up under it, and deal with the pain management. that's an example of a slow-moving crisis. but then, there's the other kind of crisis. this other kind of crisis happens all at once in a single blinding instant, like the flash-powder in the pan of an early view-camera photographer. one small motion, the close enough proximity of the match, and poof; a bright flare, a whoosh of sound, a smell of something burning, then nothing. the biggest problem with both of these kinds of crisis, is mostly that accept it or not, they are utterly unavoidable. at some point along the line, one way or another, life is visited by their unwelcome love-embrace.
Erick Henry, the conflicted, be-knighted, and bemused protagonist of Pell Doherty's lovely novel EDITH'S ARIA, is being visited simultaneously by both these varieties of crisis; both profound, both earth shattering, and each of an utter finality. The flash crisis, the sudden cataclysmic one, happens when Erick is given the un-asked for awareness that an impending nuclear conflagration will in very short order consume the world. he learns of, and must accept the fact that in a few short weeks time, the earth and virtually all life on it will simply cease to exist. political tensions, the specifics of which remain unmentioned, (much in the way political tensions in our real-world analog usually are; for like it or not, the world is still run on the premise that nations and their leaders are allowed to act like effete aristocrats in a hurry to duel to the death at every imagined slight. what could be more absurd than fighting over an abstraction, when people still struggle for access to clean drinking water. we like to think we're immune to global repercussions when our leaders go off the rails but the news is; we're not...) anyway, shortly before the action in EDITH'S ARIA begins to unfold, these unspecified international tensions have mounted; world leaders, myopic in their adherence to their own flawed, corrupt, and self-centered motives have lead the world to a brink from which there is finally to be no turning back. basically, against all rationality and against any sense of the value of life, the idiots with "the red button", actually use the damned thing. I say idiots and not lightly; for no one but an idiot would even consider use of the old doomsday button. no disrespect meant to current leaders, but some say we are actually in more danger now from nuclear destruction than we were at the height of the Cold War. how sobering. so the pentagon is actually looking to make these hideous weapons more "tactical"... (their phrase) to which i must cry bullshit. all "tactical" means is they become more mobile, and easier to deploy. i mean; how preposterous. and what absolute bastards.
as a kid I remember several families a few blocks from us building bomb shelters. it's one thing for an adult to contemplate. but picture a kid: after a game at the sandlot, baseball glove slung over the bike handlebars, our path home across several city blocks took my brothers and i past houses where we could see excavators at work churning once quiet backyards into giant, messy mounds of earth. a week or so later, you'd go by to see the block masons working down in the ground laying up block for the walls. then even later, you would go by again, but see nothing; just shrubs and newly-seeded lawn. yet you knew these little hallmarks of middle-america postwar prosperity obscured a hidden and well-stocked single-family underground bunker. it forced you, an oblivious kid on summer break, to contemplate the unimaginable. at this time, i had not yet even really kissed a girl, and here they were planning to rob me and every other kid my age of any meaningful future much past grade school. back in context of EDITH'S ARIA, at least, given the major advancements in our up-to-date and easy to use technologies of annihilation, the end would be mercifully quick.
holding the secret knowledge that the world is to end in oh say... eight or ten weeks, might compel a thoughtful person to experience a period of self-reflection. Erick sees it as an opportunity to examine in minute detail his own glacial crisis, long in coming, dragging its million-ton ice shield along with it since the early beginnings of his adulthood. for Erick, it isn't the biological kind. for him, there won't be time for any protracted illness, affording ample time to examine his apparent missteps in life. for him, being the kind of winsome, thoughtful, high-minded and well intentioned bloke that he is, his crisis, the one that he only lately has come to discover has invested his entire life with meaning, is even bigger than any cells-gone-haywire scenario; his true and unavoidable crisis is that of lost love. he realizes this loss, of a kind experienced to some degree and almost universally by all, is the kernel which resides at the very center of the person he has become. even in the face of his foreknowledge of the impending global conflagration, it's telling that finding resolution to this deepest mystery of the life he's known holds more importance for him than anything else possibly could. the people he knows and befriends may be puzzled by the inexplicability of his behavior. but to his credit and eternal blessing, Erick pursues his ghosts with a single-minded intensity; the reclamation of a lost purity, the final attainment of nascent beauty, and his reconciliation to the abandoned promises of life become his sole purpose. who he encounters along the way, and how he interacts with them in light of his secret fore-knowledge, becomes the dramatic energy propelling him, as he slinks towards the earth's destruction.
for me, this slim, beautifully rendered volume ranks right up there with other literature concerned with impending apocalypse, books which have shaped the mindset of a generation. two books which come most readily to mind are walter miller's undisputed classic A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ, and SEVENEVES, the brilliant catastrophe-survival novel by the ever-inventive neal stephenson. for me, EDITH'S ARIA is a beautiful, passionate meditation on love, loss, creativity, ambition, intellectual drive, the search for meaning, beauty, and the pursuit of happiness in a world which like ours, is fraught with calamity. in a more perfect world, one not defined by our ability to survive crisis, the reconciliation of all these would instead define a life well lived. —robby aceto